The most common complaint I’ve seen regarding John Frame’s recent Systematic Theology is that it does not contain enough historical theology. It approximates “biblicism” (cue scary music) in its approach to the Reformed faith. And while I might attribute a greater degree of significance to historical theology and confessions than does Dr. Frame (though I’m not entirely sure of this), I want to write briefly in his defense here.
The truth is, the Reformed world needs this “biblicist” systematic theology, and for several reasons:
1. No matter how much we pay lip-service to the subordinate authority of confessions, there are many in the Reformed world who seem to functionally treat the confessions as on par with Scripture. Even if this is not their heart’s intention and even if they argue that quoting the confession in theological disputes is appropriate precisely because the confessions are “biblical,” the simple point of fact is that the confessions are not the Bible. And when Reformed believers relate to their non-Reformed Christian brethren about doctrines we hold dear, the thing they need to know and emphasize the most is the Bible. The Bible alone is God’s speech (i.e. words) to His people, and as such, it is the common ground that we share with all our Christian brothers and sisters. Do you want to persuade ordinary believers of the Reformed faith? Then show them that the Bible teaches the Reformed faith.
2. Some systematic theologies are very strong on philosophical and historical issues, but forget to go over the basic biblical commonplaces for defending a position. I have often wanted to find the (forgive me) “proof texts” for various topics, and have been sorely disappointed. Never with Frame. Every time I try to explore even the most esoteric doctrines (divine atemporality, etc), Frame presents the main texts (and several besides) and then discusses what can and cannot be derived from them. This is so helpful for the teacher of theology. For many, Frame’s work will be the “go to” for approximating the sorts of texts a Reformed person might appeal to for our various distinctives.
3. While I wish Frame would state certain doctrines in stronger and more traditional language (divine simplicity, especially), his work is actually a help to the historical theologian because his views are mostly traditional. He does use some terms more broadly (law/gospel) and he adds a distinctive “Frame-flavor” (a wealth of triads, vocabulary, etc) to many doctrines. But most of the time, these “special touches” are either pedagogically useful or (at least) warrant reflection. And in either case, the substance is quite traditional– whatever the artifice. In my judgment, it takes only a small dose of critical evaluation to see this clearly. And for those (like myself) who are comfortable with a very pronounced role for reason in theology, Frame is usually a great place to go to determine how far we can get toward certain classical doctrines from Scripture alone. In some cases, Scripture “hints at” certain classical formulations which might nevertheless have a more elaborate defense from reason (in coordination with Scripture). If one does not feel the need for all truth to have a “Bible verse” to support it, then one can be easily motivated to be honest about the extent to which Scripture approximates traditional theology. And Frame is perhaps the most helpful and honest author I’ve found in showing where Scripture most closely approximates classical Christian doctrine without feeling the need to say that it goes “all the way” in each case. In short, Frame stops where the Bible stops.
4. Frame is also a philosopher by trade and so his “biblicism” does not result in the sort of shoddy exegesis or overly quick inference that often plagues such an approach. His judgments are measured with the sharp mind of a philosopher and the wisdom of one who has walked long with Christ. Even when you disagree, he asks the questions that must be grappled with. This is a biblicism with philosophical precision and a love for Christ and His church that jumps off the page. This is “the application of the word of God to our questions,” which is something like Frame’s definition of theology.
5. What is more, most of the philosophical and existential asides are more contemporary is nature than their historical theological counter-parts. Again, while I think these latter are important and essential, it is also very useful to see someone address the sorts of philosophical issues, practical problems, and common questions that might arise in a Sunday School classroom or in a conversation with a moderately educated non-historian. Several other systematic theologians have done this as well, but the reader will always walk away from Frame’s own analyses with either some nuts and bolts tools that get right to the heart of the issue, or they will be challenged to think very hard about an alternative.
In short, Frame’s is something of a “go to” systematician for determining the Biblical material that must be engaged in grappling with a topic. And he is a top contender for determining the sorts of questions that need to be answered if one is to resist his own skeptical or non-committal treatment of some traditional formulations, as well as for addressing contemporary questions in a pedagogically useful manner. Frame’s work really is for the people of God and it always directs them with humility, wisdom, and precision to His voice above all else.